Over these three nights the theme for our reflections is the Temple. Charles began on Monday by looking at the Temple as place and the importance of holy places to focus our hearts and minds on God. Yesterday Jonathan explored the Temple as a person in Jesus Christ. He looked at how zeal for the Temple consumed him in radical cleansing, replacing it and opening to us deeper and more intimate access to God’s presence. Tonight my task is to take that on a step further to look at the Temple as people in holy lives reflecting God’s presence, particularly as the people of God. And the church is the body of those people gathered together, called to lives of holiness, purity even, and radical transformation.
Hmm, I’ll let you into a secret; sometimes I don’t like the church very much – not all the time, but sometimes. Despite it’s calling we all know occasions when it misses the point and gets het up about things which are not really very important and it can be a place where people disagree badly about things which are important. It can be a place where injuries borne elsewhere or within it can fester and then trample on the pains of others. There are times when it can be shallow, unthoughtful, arrogant and abusive. It’s been a long a Lent! The reason it can be these things is because it is full of people and people are a rich mix of joy and sorrow, all sorts of mixed motives and insecurities. ‘Wouldn’t it be so much better if everyone was like me’, we might say and with the internet we can create that kind of fantasy community where we select those whose news we see and those who just don’t cross our frontiers.
There is a film in the cinemas at the moment about Noah. I’ve not had chance to see it yet, because I’ve not had a free moment to do so, but I can see I will have to so that I know what others have seen. The point about the story of Noah is not the floating zoo, or even the improbable nature of the whole venture, but the rainbow. The point of the rainbow is that desire to reboot creation, or at least humanity, doesn’t work. Wiping everyone out who is annoying, and we’ve all had that thought even if we don’t act on it, just doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Within a matter of pages after the flood everyone is back to what they were doing before and we need plan B. As NatWest used to say, before the crash and they turned out to be not that different after all, there is another way of doing things.
That other way came in a short sentence in the reading from Hebrews (10:19—25). After a reminder that we have access to God through the sacrificial love of God in Christ, we are encouraged to have hope, to trust in God and ‘provoke one another to love and good deeds’. We are to love each other into a new way of being and behaving because God loves us into a new way of being and behaving. The big stick method has not worked and we learn that very early on in the bible with Noah. There is a fault line running through the core of our being, which we call sin, because we are not perfect and that breaks out all the time. There are the little niggles, the big flaws in our character and the evil we know we do and still do it and the evil we find ourselves unwittingly caught up in, and there is the good we don’t do. If how we make this good relies on our efforts we are doomed to repeat it endlessly. That is the sacrificial system of the old Temple. It is an insatiable round of repeated actions which don’t deal with the fundamental problem – we can’t bridge the gap between what it means to be fallible, mortal creatures and the majesty and mystery of God.
The only one who can do that is God and God does that through Christ, through reaching out to draw humanity into the divine life and heart. Hebrews is an essay on this and the technical term is sanctification. It is how we are brought into the divine life. The 4th century Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, referred to Jesus as coming among us to share our nature so that we may share the nature of God, ‘God became human so that human beings may become divine’. It is an astounding statement. It is a declaration of God’s confidence and commitment to the people he creates. We are a blip in the cosmic time frame. An amazing development from the first sparks of life in some hydrothermic pool deep in the ocean. We are utterly insignificant in the grand scheme of time and we pollute the planet we have been given to live on and rely on to sustain that life. And yet, the astounding claim of Holy Week and Easter is that God thinks we’re worth bothering with; worth becoming Temples of his Spirit.
In bothering with us we are provoked, nudged, shown that love changes things. ‘Provoke’ is an interesting word because we usually use it in a negative way. When we are provoked we generally join with how God is portrayed in the story of Noah in wanting to flood the world with anger and violence. Even changing it to wanting to incite a response means that we are looking to annoy. And it has to be said when we are really steamed up there is nothing more irritating than someone who refuses to justify our anger by being thoroughly reasonable and leaving us with no focus for the huffing and puffing. The idea behind using the word ‘provoke’ is to stimulate to such a level that love becomes tangible. A better way is incited within us. And the church becomes a community where this inciting flows. If it doesn’t all of us bear the responsibility for that because all of us are the people Christ came to incite with love that love may flow into and through us. It won’t do to just say the church is a community of sinners. We are, but we are sinners who are incited to love and good deeds; we are provoked by Christ with a better way. We may be called together as sinners, but that is not the end game. The end game is that we be Temples of holiness, of God’s Spirit.
So in removing the curtain that separates human beings from the Holy of Holies, in taking the sacrificial system and in his own self-giving life and love making it obsolete, Christ has opened to us nothing short of the heart of God. The Temple is redefined in Christ; the cultic practices designed to appease an angry god as if everything rested on our efforts are turned round to show the only one who can make this good is God himself. All that cultic language of blood, sacrifice, offering, is placed on Christ who because he is God among us, shows the resolution can only rest on God alone. Salvation comes through God’s gracious gift and not by any deeds we do. The deeds we do are in response to this gift as we are provoked to love by love in love.
The Temple as a place to focus the presence of God is transformed in the person of Jesus Christ to dwell among us and through his Spirit we are called to be the people who are built into living stones to reflect holiness. The challenge is to provoke one another to be this, to love and for this love to flow out into good deeds. This is the better way. No big stick. No flood. Just arms outstretched to incite love to be tangible as if the stones of the Temple.
Address during Compline for Holy Week, Peterborough Cathedral, Wednesday 16th April 2014